XALAPA, Mexico (AP) — The death of reporter Regina Martinez was almost too much for her colleagues to bear.
Four others already had been murdered in Veracruz state in the first two years of Gov. Javier Duarte’s term — first columnist Noel Lopez Olguin, kidnapped and killed by a blow to the head. Then Miguel Angel Lopez and Misael Lopez Solana, father and son who worked for the newspaper Notiver, shot to death commando style in their home. Then Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz, Notiver crime reporter, decapitated and tortured.
But Martinez — fearless and dedicated, known to be incorruptible — was an inspiration. The 48-year-old correspondent for the investigative weekly Proceso was famous for exposing abuse and corruption in an oil-rich state overrun by organized crime and a political system as opaque as its southern jungles.
If she wasn’t safe, no one was.
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CNN Expansion reporter Rodrigo Soberanes, who considered Martinez a mentor, punched the stairwell wall of his home in rage. Correspondent Lev Garcia cried as he typed up the news for the national newspaper, Reforma.
Notimex reporter Leopoldo Hernandez, who also had learned journalism at Martinez’s side, was heading to a wedding when Garcia called his cell phone.
“Are you sitting down?” he asked. “They killed Regina.”
Hernandez felt as if he had been split open by lightening. He says he called Duarte spokeswoman Gina Dominguez, unleashing a string of profanities as he demanded to know what happened.
“Polo,” Dominguez said calmly, using his nickname, “it sounds like you think we did this.”
“Well if not you,” Hernandez replied, “then who?”
For journalists, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and Veracruz is its deadliest state. Their murderers are not brought to justice.
In the last six years under Duarte, 18 journalists were killed, three of them just this year. Another three have disappeared. Such numbers for just one state about the size of West Virginia are unmatched anywhere in the world, except the war-torn Syrian province of Aleppo, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In that same six years, another 19 journalists were killed or disappeared in all of Mexico — eight so far this year, according to the committee.
In nearly every case, journalists have been murdered with impunity. Press advocates can name only one of those 37 cases that has resulted in a conviction — Regina Martinez’s murder. And there are many reasons to believe that the man sitting in jail is not the killer.
The violence is often blamed on Mexico’s drug cartels. They pick certain journalists to control their colleagues’ coverage with money, threats or both.
But according to the government’s own statistics, more than a third of attacks on journalists were committed by public officials. That number climbs to 81 percent for Veracruz, where silencing the press has been an effective shield for rampant graft and other malfeasance.
In Mexico, the press was established not as an independent watchdog but to be in the service of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years straight and Veracruz for more than 80.
Federal and local governments pay millions to news outlets for what they call official publicity. And as the late Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo once said, “I don’t pay them to hit me.”
The Veracruz government won’t reveal how much money it has paid the press, but newspapers themselves have said it can be hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. Jorge Morales of Veracruz’s Commission for the Attention and Protection of Journalists says these contracts obligate reporters “to write lies, to manipulate information and to do things that aren’t ethical.” Journalists there are paid as little as $200 a month, sometimes less, and are easy marks for bribery.
Martinez was different. She had a professional degree and lived modestly on a better-than-average wage from a national magazine, not allowing a source or contact to buy her as much as a Coca-Cola. Among the 18 killings, hers resonates most, even four years later, as the consequence in Mexico for speaking truth to power.
And its impact goes far beyond the press.
The killing of a journalist damages all of society, said Andres Timoteo, another journalist who left Veracruz the very night he learned that his friend Martinez was dead. He figured he was next. “Criminals have found in journalists a vehicle for terrorizing the population in general. If you kill a journalist, you scare the readers, the government and journalists themselves. And the criminals have fertile ground because the (Veracruz) government permits it. They don’t investigate. They don’t convict.”
Timoteo is still in exile, more than four years later.
A tiny woman, under 5 feet and 100 pounds, with a long face and stark features, Martinez was tough. She gave voice to the poor, the exploited and the political opposition, and was a thorn in the side to four governors.
Knowing well the corruption of her colleagues, she was as wary of them as she was of authorities. She had been hurt terribly as a young reporter when she learned her boyfriend, a photographer, was informing on her to the government. She rarely talked about her private life, and to protect her family she told them not to say they were related to her.
Martinez started her career in Veracruz with state television; proudly, she would say she was fired for not being attractive enough. Eventually, in the late 1980s, she landed at La Politica, a then-new opposition newspaper. By the time she started working for Proceso in the late 1990s, she had become a reporting institution.
With oil fields in the north, petrochemical plants in the south and thousands of acres of citrus, coffee and sugar cane in between, Veracruz also offers the shortest route between the Guatemala and U.S. borders — perfect for drug smuggling.
In a state used to a docile press, Martinez landed punches regularly, covering everything from forced sterilization of indigenous women to the public money that went to pay for a governor’s private plane. Shortly before she died, she wrote that the Veracruz state deficit had grown a 67,000 percent in 11 years, with nothing to show for the borrowing.
Often, she wrote about Fidel Herrera, who served as governor from 2004-2010 — about allegations that he misused state funds from the Red Sharks soccer team, about how his name appeared in attorney general’s office documents of an investigation into drug cartels. (Herrera has denied any connection to organized crime, and there are no charges against him.)
One of her biggest stories was about a 73-year-old indigenous woman who was found raped, beaten and near death in an impoverished, mountainous zone of Veracruz. Before she died, the woman told her children she had been attacked by soldiers.
An autopsy by the state coroner confirmed that she was raped and died of her injuries.
Martinez’s stories caused a national furor, especially when federal investigators and the national human rights commission absolved the army by impugning the autopsy and said the woman died of natural causes. Martinez interviewed the coroner, who stood by his work.
When Herrera left office, and Duarte, his protégé, took over in late 2010, the drug violence in Veracruz escalated. The Zetas were in a fight for control of the Veracruz port with a new cartel, aligned with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s most notorious drug kingpin, according to the DEA and Mexican sources.
While three journalists were killed in six years under Fidel Herrera, four were killed in 2011 alone.
Martinez had suffered her share of harassment. Over the years, she was excluded from government events and official bulletins because of her stories. Sometimes when she had a big story, copies of Proceso would disappear from the newsstands in Veracruz.
In December 2011, someone broke into her house and stole her Christmas bonus.
Oddly, the burglar left her bathroom steamed up as if he had taken a shower, and destroyed her decorative soaps. It was, her friends thought, a disturbing message.
Friends say that privately, she was concerned. She thought about moving.
Everyone knew Martinez’s weekend routine. She disappeared Friday afternoons behind a locked iron gate into her modest one-bedroom bungalow, often worked through the weekend, and didn’t reappear until Monday morning. In early 2012, Martinez had been particularly secluded, telling two people in her trusted circle that she was working on something very sensitive.
On Friday evening, April 27, she cooked beans and stew, and messaged a source to cancel an interview in the coming weeks. About 10 p.m., her neighbor called to say that her iron gate had been left open. She thanked her and said she would close it.
The next morning, the same neighbor noticed the gate was still ajar and the front door wide open. She tried calling — no answer. By 5 p.m. the neighbor decided to call police. The patrol officer who responded found Martinez lying face up on her bathroom floor in a puddle of blood, beaten and strangled with a cleaning rag thrown carelessly over her face, covering all but her eyes.
Practically from the start, investigators steered away from Martinez’s work as a motive for her murder. The press leaks were immediate: She knew her killers and had been partying with them late into the night. It was a crime of passion because of a bite mark on her neck.
Within the week, then-state prosecutor Amadeo Flores Espinosa called a press conference to say the motive was likely robbery.
The crime scene was a mess, with key evidence overlooked or destroyed, according to Laura Borbolla, then-federal prosecutor for crimes against journalists. Empty beer bottles, which could hold DNA evidence, had been dusted so thoroughly with fingerprint powder, it destroyed any possible samples. Forensic investigators missed a blood stain on the side of the toilet. The fingerprint lifting from bottles and surfaces was botched, and only one print was usable.
According to court files, investigators asked her friends and colleagues if she had been threatened. No, they said. That was the end of their questioning about her work.
Instead, investigators asked her closest friends and reporters how much she drank, whether she used drugs. They treated her colleagues as suspects, taking fingerprints, shoes to match against a bloody print that was found in the bathroom, and teeth molds because of the alleged bite mark. The media leaks indicated Martinez’s friend, Leopoldo Hernandez, who had questioned the state’s participation the night she died, was her boyfriend and the main suspect, though he had photographs and ATM receipts putting him three hours away at the time the crime occurred.
In a victim profile, they wrote that Martinez drank to handle her work stress and had recently ordered miniskirts and products to enhance her libido because of a new relationship.
In October 2012, more than six months after the murder, the state attorney general announced the arrest of a suspect who had confessed to being in the house when Martinez was killed. Jorge Antonio Hernandez Silva, known as “El Silva,” was an HIV-positive drug addict and low-level criminal who had lived on the streets since he was a teen.
In this version, Martinez’s alleged boyfriend — and supposed killer — was a man named Jose Adrian Hernandez Dominguez, a sex worker and street criminal. El Silva said Dominguez, known as “El Jarocho,” met Martinez in a bar and struck up a romance. The two went to her house that night to drink beer and then rob her.
There were problems with the story. According to the autopsy, Martinez had no alcohol in her system, only coffee. There was no bite on her neck, rather a large bruise and a broken jaw likely from brass knuckles. If the motive was robbery, her purse was left untouched, including her wallet with three credit cards. Other electronic equipment was left behind, including an Apple iBook. Gone were her laptop and two cell phones, and all the information they contained.
None of the forensic evidence, not blood samples or DNA collected under Martinez’s fingernails, matched El Silva. And Jarocho’s fingerprints and DNA were not available for match, even though he had been in the penal system.
But the biggest breakdown in the Martinez case came from the jailed suspect himself. Once El Silva got before a judge, he said he had been abducted by men he believed to be members of the Veracruz Investigations Agency, held for more than a week and tortured and threatened into confessing to the crime.
Still, he is serving a 38-year sentence as an accessory to the crime. Jarocho remains at large. State prosecutor Luis Angel Bravo (who resigned this week) says the case is closed.
If investigators had looked into Martinez’s work, they would have found that in recent months she had told at least two people, including her editor at Proceso, that she was working on something that had to do with the former governor, Herrera, and corruption.
She also was looking into the number of unclaimed bodies buried in the mass grave in the Xalapa municipal cemetery and how many had died of gunshot wounds to see if the government was using the anonymous graves to hide victims of escalating drug violence.
It is possible that Martinez was killed for no specific reason. Perhaps someone just wanted to send a message, colleagues say.
“I think it was planned. ‘Let’s kill this woman to teach a lesson to everyone else.’ And that’s what happened,” said Miguel Diaz, founder of the independent online newspaper Plumas Libres. “A lot of people fled, and investigative journalism disappeared from Veracruz for many years.”
Among those who fled: Martinez’s closest colleagues, like Soberanes, Hernandez and Garcia. They had formed a protective circle to carry out their critical reporting, sharing information and publishing sensitive stories at the same time so no one person was exposed. Only one has since returned.
In the aftermath, corruption has flourished. In October, after six years in office and waves of scandals, Duarte resigned — and disappeared. Chased by charges of organized crime and money laundering, he left behind a state bedeviled by lawlessness and violence. The government has posted a $730,000 reward for his capture.
Every year on April 28, Martinez’s colleagues commemorate her death in Xalapa’s main square, Plaza Lerdo, demanding justice. A group of activists has been trying to get the plaza renamed in her honor, installing a plaque reading “Plaza Regina Martinez.”
Every year, it is swiftly taken down by authorities.
Reporting for this article was supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation.